This short story is a not-for-profit work of fan fiction, a homage to the work of author Bernard Cornwell. The character of Richard Sharpe is the copyrighted property of Mr Bernard Cornwell and the story is based on the character as developed in Mr Cornwell's series of novels.
It is May 1809. Wellesley has been reappointed to the Army of Portugal and within a week of his arrival, the army is on the move. Soult has invaded Portugal from the North, and it is up to Sharpe and his fellows to throw him out again!
Lieutenant Richard Sharpe of the 2nd battalion, 95th (Rifle) Regiment snapped his telescope shut, and turned his gaze left towards Oporto on the opposite side of the Douro where French gunners could be seen lazily lounging around their guns.
"Ain't no Frenchies opposite here," he commented. 2nd Lieutenant Viscount Sellingsbridge grunted his agreement, sweeping his own telescope back and forth across the hills opposite.
"But there ain't no boats, either, Richard, and if Wellesley thinks I'm going to swim that he's touched in his upper works."
That was the River Douro, which at the moment was in full flood, as wide as the Thames and probably colder. To their right the river bent southwards around the hill on which they stood before disappearing from sight around the hills on the other bank. To their left the village of Vila Nova stood on its hilltop, facing Oporto, climbing its own hill across the river. Behind them, at the top of the hill, stood a deserted convent in which Wellesley had set up his headquarters. All along this section of the Douro the hills climbed directly from the water's edge. There was no room to land a large body of men. It was as unpromising a spot for an opposed river crossing as Sharpe could remember. The only comfort was the lack of activity directly opposite them.
Sharpe could see plenty of French in the town, and the glint of sun on metal told of patrols out downstream. But upsteam, opposite their position, there was nothing. That could mean only one thing: the French had commandeered every boat and at the moment were relaxing in the town of Oporto, probably swilling the Port wine for which the town was famous and metaphorically thumbing their noses at the British. Much as he hated to admit it, Selly was right, if they couldn't find boats they were stuck. The two men turned and started to walk back towards the Rifles' bivouac.
Technically the 95th Rifles weren't in Portugal at the moment. Both the 1st and 2nd Battalions had returned to England with the rest of Moore's army after Corunna and were not among the troops who had arrived with Wellesley. But as was usually the case, when Moore marched there had been men sick in hospital and off on detached duties. Selly's half platoon had been on escort duty in Southern Portugal. Sharpe's group had marched with Moore, but their half battalion had been cut off during the retreat to Corunna, and after a running battle with the French in Galicia, Sharpe and the survivors had made it back to Portugal. There they had met one of the army's engineers, a Major Hogan, on a reconnaissance mission and had travelled with him back to Lisbon.
Since January, and the news of Corunna, the army in Portugal had been inactive. General Cradock was an old woman in Sharpe's opinion and pessimistic as well. Patrols had been sent out to monitor French movements, but apart from that all the preparations seemed to be aimed at withdrawal. But despite his croaking, Cradock was a good administrator and had the army in good order. Even the large number of soldiers left behind when their regiments had gone with Moore had been organised into two "Battalions of Detachments" for administrative and supply purposes. As part of this process all the remaining 95th Riflemen had been gathered together to effectively form the Light Company of 1st Detachments with the solitary captain (when he was present) in command. Not that the riflemen spent much time at 1st Detachments' cantonment. Every patrol or convoy required its complement of riflemen and since they were already detached, it was usually the 95th riflemen rather than those lazy sods from 5/60th. The army maintained its order, but became increasingly defeatist, especially when news came of Soult's advance into Northern Portugal and the massacre of the Portuguese defenders at Oporto.
Wellesley's arrival had changed all that. Complimenting his old friend, Cradock, on the Army's good order, the new commander sat down to master the details of his command. He was pleased with its state, though its numbers were smaller than he would like particularly in the matter of skirmishers. Beresford was working wonders with the Portuguese Army, and a proportion was already fit to fight the French again, discipline restored (particularly among the officers) and morale rapidly improving. A couple of small victories to boost their confidence, and they would (he thought) prove good troops. The army's organisation, though not to his mind optimum, was adequate for it's current task and the only change he made was to detach some of 5/60th's companies to even up the skirmish line.
Intelligence was another matter. Cradock had not expected to fight and had made little effort towards gathering any. Looking at what little had been done led Wellesley to ask Hogan of the Engineers for a briefing. According to that enterprising officer, the French looked to be planning a sophisticated three pronged attack. Wilson's Portuguese irregulars, around Almeida and Guarda, had sent in reports of a cavalry division under Lapisse hovering around Ciudad Rodrigo, and the Spanish General Cuesta was sending shrill demands for assistance against a French army opposite him in the region of Talavera de la Reina. Soult, of course, had already thrust south from Galicia as far as Oporto, but had simply stuck there since February. According to Silveira's Militia, they were having supply problems and Hogan himself had certain news of a Galician uprising which must be playing merry hell with communications between Soult and Ney at Corunna. He had chuckled to hear that it had been that rogue Sharpe who had brought the news, together with a bunch of rifles cut off during the retreat, south to Portugal. The man seemed to be turning out well for an ex-ranker. It took a good officer to hold a group of men together and fight your way back to your lines.
But it was the information the Frenchman, Argenton, brought that galvanised Wellesley into action. An officer in Soult's Army, Argenton wasn't a traitor, just a conspirator who wanted English help (though not an English advance). For a few weeks he slipped to and fro between the English and French camps undetected. A naive and foolish man, he gave Wellesley more information than he knew. Soult, moving south from Galicia, had had no communication with either Victor in Spanish Estremadura, or Lapisse in Leon for months. The peasant uprising in Spain and Portugal had destroyed French communications.
Wellesley saw the opportunity to destroy the French piecemeal. Leaving a strong contingent to hold the Tagus/Zezere line against any activity by Victor, Wellesley moved his army north to Coimbra with the aim of driving Soult out of Portugal before either Lapisse or Victor knew he was on the move. Beresford with two divisions (mainly Portuguese) was sent off from Coimbra two days before the rest of the army up the inland roads to cut off any attempt by the French to retreat east. The rest of the army moved up the main north road, with Hill's division on the left performing a series of outflanking movements. 1st Detachments were part of Stewart's brigade in Edward Paget's division. They formed the vanguard of Wellesley's centre column. Sharpe remembered Paget from Moore's campaign, commanding a rear-guard which included QM Lieutenant Sharpe. He was a wealthy aristocratic, the short-sighted younger brother of Moore's cavalry commander, but nevertheless a committed career soldier and a good commander.
It had been a hard march. The French had barely started to fight on the Vouga before they had seen Hill's division and scampered off, chased by the cavalry as far as Albergaria. The army had marched near twenty mile the next day before coming into contact again. The Grijon position was a strong one, and the Rifles had seen action clearing Frog skirmishers out of a wood, but once again the French had seen Hill's division flanking them, and been off before the fighting had got really serious. Last night they had heard a terrific explosion, and this morning they had reached the Douro to discover that the French had abandoned the south bank without a fight and blown up the bridge of boats.
The Light Company of 1st Detachments had begun the march under the command of a Captain from the 1st battalion of the 95th with Sharpe as senior lieutenant. The captain had been wounded in the action at Grijon yesterday and today, much to his amazement, Richard Sharpe, a whore's son from the gutters, found himself acting captain of 1st Detachments' Light Company. They were about 50 in number: Sharpe's 30 veterans from Moore's campaign, Selly's half platoon, plus a number of others, bivouacked in a hollow over the hill. Not all the riflemen were marching with the army. Carey, the lieutenant next in seniority to Sharpe, was off on a scouting mission with 20 men; and one of the junior lieutenants was escorting an engineering party. Sharpe didn't mind. Carey, the son of a poor vicar with few prospects, was appalled at being subordinate to Sharpe, and didn't hesitate to show it. Selly, next senior after Carey, he got on with very well. Selly was the army-mad son of a wealthy Earl with a future assured by money and couldn't give a damn who he was junior to now. Determined to be a true professional soldier like his hero, Sir John Moore, he saw in Sharpe a wealth of experience from which he intended to learn as much as possible before promotion took him out of the ex-ranker's ken.
Half an hour ago Murray's Germans, which with Stewart's brigade formed General Paget's division, had set off up-river towards a place called Avintas. There was a ferry at Avintas which the French had sunk, but they hadn't done a very thorough job and the local Portuguese thought it could be easily refloated. The Buffs, part of Hill's brigade and division, were getting ready to follow. But the ferry was at least four miles away, and would have to be refloated before the brigade could start crossing, so it looked as though Sharpe, Selly and the rest of Stewart's brigade would be having a lazy day in the sun.
Heading south and east away from the river, around the hill towards the bivouac, the two men picked up one of the tracks which criss-crossed the line of hills to the south of the river. Just short of the point where they would be challenged by the Rifle's picquets, they met Tom Hamilton of the 29th, one of the other battalions in Stewart's brigade, who was wandering out for a look at the French. Sharpe described the lay of the land, and the three officers agreed that action was unlikely that day. They were making arrangements for dinner together when they heard the sound of a horse being pushed hard up the hill. Stepping off the track to avoid being run down, they looked up, curious to see who would be in such a hurry when action seemed so unlikely. A dark haired cavalry officer, bent low over his horse's neck, raced past, eyes intent on the rough track ahead. Sharpe, looking after him, doubted whether he had even seen the three officers.
"Bloody cavalry show off!" Selly grinned towards Sharpe, but Sharpe was still looking towards where the rider had disappeared and didn't turn his head.
"Selly," he said, "get back to the men, and stand 'em to arms."
"Richard?" Selly queried. Hamilton, too, was staring after the cavalryman, trying to remember where he'd seen him before.
"That were Colonel Waters, Selly. Used to scout for Moore." He grinned at Selly and Hamilton. "Odds on he scouts for Wellesley now, mad bastard." He cocked his head towards the camp. "Go on, Selly, I'm going to find the General. He'll want to know this". Selly nodded, and continued along the path, though at a much brisker pace. Hamilton grinned elatedly at Sharpe.
"Think I'll get the old 29th stirring, too." Sharpe grinned back and winked before heading back in the other direction, towards HQ and General Edward Paget. Just as he was approaching HQ, Waters came galloping back the other way, forcing Sharpe to jump off the path again. Something was definitely happening. Sharpe quickened his pace, determined to be part of it.
Just short of HQ Sharpe met Paget riding out. The general peered short sightedly at the figure trotting towards him along the track. The face was a blur, but the figure was dressed in dark green, which meant a rifleman.
"That you, Mr Sharpe?" Paget guessed and when Sharpe had affirmed it and turned to trot alongside Paget's horse he continued. "Got to get those Rifles of yours moving, Mr Sharpe."
"I sent Lieutenant Sellingsbridge back to stand them at arms when I saw Colonel Waters, sir."
"Good man! Waters has found some boats, down the bottom of this hill, just far enough round the bend to be out of sight of Oporto. It's not far from the road to Avintas so we've stopped the tail end of the 3rd, and we're going to throw them across into that building. But we'll need a light company, and the Buff's light company is long gone."
Sharpe grinned, but kept his breath for trotting. He remembered the building from his reconnaissance with Selly earlier. It looked like one of the numerous religious establishments scattered all over Portugal, similar to the convent behind him. They usually had solid walls and small windows. Throw a company of Rifles into it, and he'd defy an entire French army to take it.
Back at the bivouac, the miscellaneous riflemen who formed the Light company of 1st Detachments were tumbling into line. There was a certain amount of grumbling, but it was good natured. Already they were beginning to catch the excitement of impending battle. As Sharpe trotted up with the General, Harper, the big Irish sergeant was moving down the line issuing extra cartridges. Selly was organising the forward picquets, an automatic action for a rifle officer even though there were no French left south of the river. Stewart, the brigadier, rode up, pleasure at the fact that the company had used its initiative and brought credit to the battalion, mixed with displeasure that they had not waited for his orders. He and Paget discussed the situation, and Paget sent him off to stand the rest of the brigade to arms, ready for orders from Wellesley. It was at this point that Sharpe realised that Paget intended to come with them. Shocked, he tried to think of words with which to remonstrate with the general without getting himself court-marshalled, but none would come. Lieutenants do not tell divisional commanders what not to do, even if divisional commanders have no right being in forward outposts.
Resigned, Sharpe turned to the tasks which fall to a captain when his company is going into battle. He told off a small detachment to guard the baggage, made arrangements with the acting quartermaster sergeant to load up the mule with ammunition and bring it forward ready, and briefed all the other officers. Then they moved out, over the crest of the hill and down to the river. Once over the crest, the general's horse became a liability and he dismounted and scrambled down the hill with the men. Ahead of the main group the picquets moved through the scrub either side of the track and ahead of the column. Moving down the path, Sharpe looked at them critically. Despite the relative safety of the current situation, they were taking their work seriously, slipping between cover, watching all directions, rifles at the ready. He was surprised to feel a glow of satisfaction.
Down at the river confusion reigned. Waters was the most senior officer present, but, being a fluent speaker of Portuguese, he was working with the boatmen. This left a captain of the 3rd in charge of the embarkation. The young officer was enormously relieved to see General Paget, but horrified when he discovered the general intended to cross with the first boatload of riflemen. Being more senior than Sharpe, he managed a ... "But, sir! ..." before capitulating and telling off the riflemen into boatloads.
As soon as a boat arrived, Paget was in it with Sharpe and the picquets. It happened to be the boat with Colonel Waters in. Colonel Waters managed ... "Sir, do you think this wise. The French could attack at any moment," and was silenced with, ... "all the more reason for me to be over there!" He looked around for support, but all he got was a look of sympathy from Sharpe. Waters frowned at the rifleman, knowing the face but unable to place it. Sharpe decided to be helpful.
"Sahagun, sir. I were quartermaster then, supplying an outpost company when you came in. We went back to headquarters together."
"And now you're commanding a company of Riflemen?"
"No, sir. Just acting command of a company of light detachments, until the Captain recovers. Ain't no 95th in Portugal." There was a certain sourness in Sharpe's tone with which Waters could sympathise. No soldier likes to be detached from his regiment, with no prospect of returning.
"They'll be back soon, jealous because they've missed all the fighting." Sharpe looked at Waters, judging the weight of the statement. Waters was close to HQ, and would know things, though the rest of the army still expected to be recalled.
The boat grounded, and men started leaping out, General Paget among the first. "I'll select picquets and send the rest of the men up to the building, sir." Sharpe suggested, and Paget nodded before heading up the hill. Sharpe looked back towards the boat to find that all the men were ashore and the boat pushing off. Waters grinned at him.
"The road to Spain runs along behind the hills, the French will probably come from the North as well as from the town." He left it at that, knowing better than to advise a light officer on outpost work.
"Thanks, sir," Sharpe replied before turning to select the men he wanted for outpost duty. The rest he sent up the hill with Selly, with instructions to deploy them on the roof of the building which he now knew was a Seminary. Whatever that was.
Sharpe and his men crept up the hill, steadily moving to their left to clear the walls of the seminary. They dodged their way from cover to cover, endeavouring to keep out of sight of the town. While the seminary was a defensible building, the more men who were in it before the French realised what was happening, the better. He left his first picquet at the brink of the drop, within eyesight of the building, but able to see down the slope to the town, where the seminary was blind. He was selecting the site for the fourth picquet between the seminary and the road, when they were startled by a noise from behind them. Ten rifles were cocked and pointed, when a sheepish voice, in response to a demand, identified himself as Lieutenant Selllingsbridge.
"Wot the 'ell are you doing 'ere?" demanded Sharpe angrily. Selly was startled by the tone.
"I wanted to come," he almost stammered.
"Lieutenant Lord Sellingsbridge just wanted to come, so he abandoned his men and came? Are you mad?" All of a sudden Selly realised what he had done. Not only had he abandoned his men, he had undermined Sharpe's authority, led astray by the fact that until yesterday they had been lieutenants together.
"I'm sorry, Captain Sharpe. It was stupid of me. I'll go back."
Sharpe looked towards the town. Was that movement he saw near the edge?
"No, you'll have to stay now. The less movement round here the better." After setting the rest of the picquets, Sharpe headed back to the north-west to a vantage point he'd picked out earlier, a small hillock with good natural cover. He sat down to wait, feeling alone since Harper had unaccountably asked to stay with the last picket. In a while, if the French did not come, he'd check around the picquets again, or send Selly to do it. He had ignored Selly since his initial burst of anger, but having reminded himself he looked round to where the young lieutenant was standing.
"Sit down," he half commanded. Selly came hesitantly forward.
"I'm sorry Captain." Sharpe was startled, Selly had always used his christian name before. He looked at the young man's face, and decided he was sincere.
"It don't come easy to me, commanding like."
"No, no, you were right. It was my fault, my arrogance. I've always wanted to be, aimed to be, a good soldier and today I broke a cardinal rule." Sharpe darted a quick look at him, before continuing his scanning of the horizons. He was beginning to realise what was really troubling Selly about the incident. Selly had set himself standards, and today he had broken them.
"Don't worry, I won't report you. I hadn't given you a direct order."
"I shouldn't need a direct order; I'm a Rifle officer." Sharpe was nearly ten years older than Selly, and suddenly he was feeling every one of them. He was also, quite suddenly, feeling genuinely like Selly's superior officer, seeking ways to reassure the young man and restore his confidence.
"Don't look at me, Selly lad, keep an eye out for them French."
"Yessir." The response was immediate. Sharpe had a pretty good idea of why Selly had followed him. The trick was to get him to realise that it was an estimable reason, if not the right thing to do in the circumstance.
"Why did you join the Rifles, Selly? I mean I'd have thought you were a cavalry type." Selly grinned sheepishly.
"I was going to join the cavalry. Especially after I went to the college." Sharpe looked an quick enquiry at him. "High Wycombe. General Le Marchant's there. He's a real soldier."
"But?" Selly blushed, scanning the skyline.
"One day General Stewart came and gave us a lecture - General William Stewart, not this one. He told us about the Rifles and ..." Sharpe laughed, remembering his one and only meeting with the regiment's founder.
"That was that, eh? Stewart has that effect."
"They sounded so ... professional as well as exciting."
"And you wanted to be a professional soldier." Sharpe's suspicions were steadily being confirmed. "How often have you set picquets, in enemy territory like?" There was a pause.
"And you wanted to learn. Whats more you need to learn. So next time you ask, before I, or whoever's in command, set off without you." Sharpe could almost hear the smile in Selly's voice as he replied, "yessir!"
The two men scanned the horizons, the silence between them companionable now, rather than tense. Sharpe worried about the north, not just because of Waters' warning, but because of the faint dust clouds rising over the nearer hill, telling of troops moving along a hidden road. He tried to work out how long they'd been sitting there, for once regretting his lack of a watch.
"How long we been here, Selly," he asked, but Selly hadn't thought to check his watch at any time since they'd left the bivouac. Sharpe cut short his apologies, insisting that it was nothing, but knowing that the young aristocrat was going to spend an unnecessary amount of time checking his watch in the weeks ahead. Just as he decided that it was time to check the picquets, he heard the sound of footsteps approaching.
"Who goes there!" His voice and Selly's muttered in unison.
"Harper, Patrick, Sergeant 95th," came the formal reply in Pat Harper's Irish brogue.
"Advance, Harper, and be recognised," laughed Sharpe, "I was just thinking myself it was time for a check of the picquets." Automatically Sharpe checked the priming of his rifle as a preliminary to rising. Harper caught the young lieutenant looking at it.
"That's Sharpe's special, that rifle," he said to the young man. Harper knew. He was one of the few men apart from Sharpe who'd been allowed to fire it. Sharpe grinned, and caressed the stock before cautiously rising and slinging the gun over his shoulder.
"French are on the move," he commented to Harper, nodding towards the north. Harper nodded. It meant the rifles had to watch two directions, but Waters' advice had allowed them to cover that.
The three men moved out eastwards along the north side of the seminary, slipping from cover to cover. The picquets were all alert, and all had noticed the dust beyond the hills. They returned the way they had come and started south along the west side of the Seminary. Eventually the three men reached the picquets at the south-west corner of the building. From here they could see the last few men of the Buffs still being ferried across, thirty men to a boat, with the 48th and 66th getting organised to follow. With nearly a whole battalion in the seminary the position becoming more secure by the moment. Shading his eyes, Sharpe looked back across the river. He could see movement at the top of the hill; it looked like the artillery was being deployed. He couldn't imagine the artillery being carried in the boats which had brought the Buffs across. Perhaps they were going to follow Murray's contingent?
Sharpe looked towards the town, then back to the north. It was too good to last. The French must have been sleeping off a nights carousing to let the English get this far. He felt uneasy, a pricking at the nape of his neck. He looked towards Harper, their eyes met and he knew that Harper too was uneasy. He didn't know how, but he knew the French attack was coming.
"Selly, stay up there with the second picquet. Get ready to cover the others when the Frenchies come. Harper, come along with me. I want to pull them further picquets back."
Selly followed them back to the second picquet and took charge there. Sharpe and Harper carried on around the Seminary. As they walked, lightfooted, along the northern line of picquets both men felt the prickling at the back of their necks grow worse. At the risk of giving away his position, Sharpe stopped and extended his telescope and scanned the horizon. The dust cloud still hovered over the hills which shielded the Vallonga road, but as far as he could judge it moved no closer. The French were not moving towards them from that direction. Snapping the telescope shut, he looked towards the town, then up along the river and came to a decision.
"Call the end picquet up, Harper, we're going to take a look." Harper whistled the recall, and the easternmost picquet came running quietly up past their fellows. Sharpe led the men north and west towards the point where the Vallonga road left the town. They found a path winding up the hill. As they approached the crest of the hill they slowed down, taking to the cover either side of the path. Slowly they edged towards the ridge and peered over.
"Bloody hell!" Sharpe swore at the sight of a skein of tirailleurs covering a full French battalion marching at the double in columns to attack the seminary. "Back!" Falling back in order, the advance group did their duty, picking off a couple of French officers, but they could not hope to slow the French advance down. As they approached the line of picquets guarding the northern approaches to the seminary, Sharpe called the men in to loose skirmish formation, but the skirmish line they formed was pitifully short and they were too few to slow down the French. Behind the first French battalion, a second and a third advanced in support. One of the riflemen fell, struck by a fluke French musketball. The French tirailleurs were getting dangerously close.
"Fall back, fall back!" called Sharpe, standing and signalling with his arm towards the remaining picquets along the west side of the seminary. As they fell back towards the river and the seminary gate, they would gather the remaining picquet groups in. The tirailleurs aimed at Sharpe, but missed as he ducked back down into cover. Still the French advanced.
Suddenly the crest of the hill over the river exploded in smoke as Wellesley ordered his artillery to open fire. The riflemen found themselves in the midst of hell as a hail of shrapnel burst overhead. The French front line faltered as men fell, not in ones and twos but in groups of ten and twelve at a time. One of the rifleman grasped his rifle left handed, his other arm hanging limp. The remaining tirailleurs dived for cover as the artillery fired again.
"Back, back, fast!" yelled Sharpe, throwing caution to the winds and standing to urgently wave his men back towards the Seminary. Concern overiding self preservation he stood, counting his men as they ran towards the cover of the seminary walls. Behind him another shell burst in front of the French line and a piece of casing flew back and caught him on the back of the head. He fell to his knees, his shako landing on the ground in front of him. He tried to catch his rifle as it slipped from his shoulder, but the blood streaming down his face blocked his eyes. Through the red and darkening mist he saw Pat Harper stop, and turn around.
"Get 'em home, Pat, get 'em home!" He called desperately and collapsed forward beside his gun.
Pat Harper was torn, but knew Sharpe would never forgive him if he failed to get the men back. The British gunners had their fuses well set, and the shells were exploding at about head height.
"Down," he yelled, "down, crawl back." the men dropped into the bushes. At this level, most of the shrapnel had lost its speed, and while there were a few curses when a lump hit someone, on the whole the men were safer. The group reached the nearer picquets, intact save for Sharpe and the dead man, the injured riflemen being helped by their mates. Lieutenant Sellingsbridge came to meet them.
"Where's the Captain," Harper cocked his head backwards.
"He was hit by our shrapnel, sor!" The lieutenant swore softly and fluently, looking towards where the French line was attempting to regroup. Quickly he turned and barked out a few orders, and the picquets reformed and moved back towards the gate. He turned back in time to see Harper disappearing into the bushes.
"Wait, Sergeant!" Harper looked back. "I'm coming with you."
"No argument. Where is he?"
The two men moved forward, running crouched low. Every now and then Harper stuck his head up to get his bearings, timing his moves against the explosions. Every time saw the French slightly closer to where Sharpe had fallen. But the French were trying to hold a formation, while Harper and Selly ran free. Nevertheless the French were damned close by the time the pair dropped by Sharpe's body. The ground beside Sharpe's head was soaked with the blood. Harper pressed his linen stock over the wound while turning his friend's body over. Selly checked the body.
"Looks like it's just the head, Sergeant," he said. Harper nodded, checking for a pulse.
"He's still breathing, sor. Can I have the stock off ye, to tie this on?"
Selly ripped the cravat off his neck and tossed it to Harper. A noise made Selly swing round and Harper look up. A French voltigeur stood between the bushes, looking at them, a smile slowly curving across his face. But there was only one of him, and two Anglais so he paused. The pause gave Selly the time to become aware of what was underneath his hand. As the Frenchman swung his musket round and opened his mouth to shout, Selly swung Sharpe's rifle up, prayed it was primed and fired. The impact of the rifle shot at close range threw the Frenchman back.
"Here, sor!" Without thinking, Selly took the handful of cartridges Harper passed him and stuffed all but one in his pocket. While Harper heaved Sharpe's unconscious body over his shoulders, Selly reloaded, keeping his eyes out for any more adventurous voltigeurs.
"Sor, best we be gone."
"Right, Sergeant," Selly acknowledged, and started to edge backwards, holding the rifle at his hips. He heard Harper stumbling under the weight, for although Sharpe was lean, he was a tall man and no lightweight. Selly glanced over his shoulder to see how Harper was managing. The big Irishman was moving steadily now, bending as far down as he could to keep his comrade's body away from the shrapnel. Selly noted the ground and adjusted his direction, looking back again to guard against any other French skirmishers. They covered a fair distance before Selly had to fire the rifle again. This time he had more warning and had time to brace the weapon and aim. He smiled as the bullet hit the Frenchman in the heart, and reloaded.
"It's a beautiful weapon, Harper." The sergeant grunted in reply and the pair continued to move back towards the seminary. Eventually they moved clear of the area being bombarded by the British gunners, and Harper was able to stand up. Selly took one last look back, but the artillery fire and the fire from the seminary walls had halted the French advance, so he turned round and hurried to assist Harper, slinging Sharpe's rifle over his shoulder. The guard on the seminary gate let them in, and Harper put Sharpe's body down against the wall. Beside him, Selly snapped to attention, and Harper rose as General Hill came up, his usually cheerful face full of concern.
"How is ...?" Daddy Hill paused, not recognising either of the officers or the big Sergeant who had just stood up. Outside the noise of battle had died down as the first French attack withdrew.
"Acting Captain Sharpe, sir, Light Company, 1st Detachments, and I'm Lieutenant Sellingsbridge and this is Sergeant Harper. Captain Sharpe has a head wound, we don't know how serious." Selly answered the unspoken question. "We came across with General Paget.."
"Ah! Poor Paget. So they're your riflemen upstairs. Good to have you but what can you tell me of the French? I know you wish to have Mr Sharpe attended to, but I'm afraid I must know."
Selly ceded the floor to Harper, who described what he and Sharpe had seen over the ridge and the effect of the British artillery. After a couple of quick questions, Hill seemed satisfied and with a quick "Well done, indeed!" turned and walked back to his command post. Harper dropped to the floor again beside Sharpe and carefully removed the bandage. Selly dropped the other side and held Sharpe's head. The bleeding seemed to have stopped, and the wound looked shallow. It was difficult to judge with head wounds, but Harper had seen worse and the men had survived, others with barely a scratch had unaccountably died.
"Could I trouble ye to fetch me some water, Sor?" Selly looked up and saw one of the riflemen crossing the courtyard. He called to him and soon the rifleman returned with a pannikin of water. Selly held it for Harper to clean the wound, but the Sergeant took the pannikin off him and threw it in Sharpe's face. Sharpe jerked, spluttered, and his eyes fluttered open. He stared about him uncomprehendingly for a moment, then seemed to become aware of his dripping face.
"Who ...?" His vision cleared enough to notice Harper, trying to keep the smirk off his face. "Might have guessed!" he muttered, and tried to sit up. The pain which stabbed through his head made him groan and his hand went to the gash in his scalp.
"Ye've had an argument wid a wee bit o shrapnel, sor." Sharpe looked at the hand which had explored his scalp. Judging by the blood on it, he must look like something from a slaughterhouse. "A bit of our shrapnel, sor. Bled like a stuck pig, ye did, sor, but I don't think it got through yer thick skull, sor." Selly hid a grin. "If ye'll just keep the hands away, sor, I'll put the bandage back on." While Harper rebandaged, Sharpe questioned Selly, and seemed pleased to hear that all but one of the picquets were back in with mainly minor cuts and bruises. With the bandage in place, he struggled to get up.
"Will ye be takin' it aisy now, sor!" protested Harper.
"Yes, I do believe you should rest awhile Richard." added Selly.
"Nah, help me up. I want to get up top, and see what's happening." In the face of Sharpe's determination, Harper and Selly gave up and helped Sharpe to his feet. Between them they managed to keep him upright as, head swimming, he staggered into the Seminary's main building. The stairs were another matter, but by keeping his feet off the ground the pair managed to get Sharpe up them, still vertical. As he came out on the Seminary roof, the small Rifle company gave him a cheer. Sharpe smiled weakly as Daddy Hill called "Now, lads, keep your mind on the job. We ain't finished yet." Sharpe dragged himself and his bearers across to the parapet, and propped himself up to watch the action.
And true enough, the French were attacking again. Less impetuously this time, and in more strength. Artillerymen were bringing cannon along the shore track from the Oporto quay, and several French regiments, each two or three battalions strong, were massing along the track which ran to the north of the Seminary. The Buffs entire battalion was in the Seminary now as well as Sharpe's fifty riflemen, but the French artillery were threatening the boats carrying the 48th, and if they came into action no more could be ferried across. General Paget was with the wounded, and would lose his arm, but Daddy Hill was calm and confident, and the men knew the French could be held.
The French unlimbered the first of their guns, and started training it on the boats on the opposite side of the river, but they didn't get to fire a shot. A single mortar fired from the Convent over the river, and by luck or judgement both the fuse and the aim were perfect; the shell exploded in the air just over the gun. When the smoke cleared every man and beast of the artillery team was seen to be down. The men in the Seminary cheered, and Daddy Hill smiled.
Then the drums started. Dum dum, dum dum, dum a dum, dum a dum, dum dum. The French were advancing. As the regiments cleared the track from town, more French troops poured out of Oporto to line up behind them. It looked like Soult meant to empty Oporto and throw every man at the Seminary to retake it and force the British back over the river. Before long the French front line were in range of the mortars across the river. Sharpe winced at every explosion, and not just because the noise produced splinters of pain from his wound. The shrapnel was creating havoc amongst the infantry. But the French came on, and it looked as if the Seminary would be swamped by a sea of Frenchmen.
Soon the advancing troops were in range for the riflemen, and the group began a steady pattern of load, aim, fire, trying to pick off the opposition's officers and NCOs. Harper and Selly were doing their bit, leaving Sharpe securely propped up against the wall. But the tide rolled inexorably in towards them. Sharpe wondered what it would be like to be a French prisoner, but killed the thought. Even if they surrounded the Seminary, taking it was another matter.
His eyes wandered away from the French front line, back towards the troops following after them. The smoke from the shrapnel shells was beginning to obscure the ground on the approaches, but from the height of the Seminary he could still see the road coming out of Oporto, still see French troops marching out of town. He frowned. The latest group of Frenchmen didn't turn towards the seminary, but kept moving along the road to Spain. Sharpe's eyes swung back towards the town, but could see nothing unusual. Swung further and stopped, disbelieving, staring at the activity on the river. He pulled his telescope out. He could see redcoats in boats being ferried across. Steadying the telescope on the parapet, he followed the line of the river amongst the drifting smoke. He thought he could see some flashes of red amongst the houses, but the drifting smoke confused the eyes.
More urgent bugle calls sounded from the Vallonga road, and Sharpe swung his telescope back. The French were massing for a third attack on the Seminary. The drums started, and the French moved forward, the main body heading for the Seminary as before, but this time a battalion swung off to the north, possibly to loop around the Seminary and attack the boats from the east. Sharpe called Hill's attention to it, and the General waved acknowledgement. Sharpe swung his telescope back towards the river. A fluke gust of wind tore the smoke apart. Sharpe gasped. Redcoats were pouring out of the town - the 29th followed by the Guards - taking the French in the flank.
Sharpe bounced up, pointed, and managed one half cheer before he passed out.
Later that night Sharpe, nursemaided by Harper, caught up with his riflemen as they bivouacked a couple of miles along the Vallonga road. Selly had led them out in the initial chase of the French, but Murray's boys had finally got their act together and taken up the job, leaving the Buffs and the Rifles to have a well earned rest. Harper settled Sharpe down with the lieutenants and went to reassert his authority on the men. He reckoned that come morning the Captain would be fine and raring to go, and shook his head in amazement at the solidity of the skull beneath the black hair.
"Well, Selly, how did you enjoy that?" Sharpe asked. Selly's face was sober as he thought back over the days action. It had been nothing like his childish dreams, not heroic, no knights in shining armour, just sheer, bloody, dangerous hard work.
"I don't really know what I expected, but it was nothing like it." He noticed Sharpe looking back wistfully towards Oporto. "Is anything the matter, Richard?"
"Bad as a bloody greenhorn," Sharpe muttered to himself, before turning back to Selly. "I dropped m'bloody rifle, Selly, and that were no ordinary one. Never get another like it, I won't."
Selly smiled, picked up the gun from his belongings, and held it out to his Captain.
A comment on the history
The retaking of Oporto happened pretty much as described. Good intelligence combined with French carelessness gave Wellesley the opportunity to get troops across the river unopposed. The troops used were the first brigade of Hill's Division the 1/3rd (the Buffs), followed by the 48th, the 66th and an unknown Portuguese battalion. I have taken the liberty of having the Buffs moving out after the KGL when the order came to take the seminary, since this would allow them to deploy rapidly. It also gives me a reason why their own Light Company was not immediately available (since it would be leading the column).
I have explained elsewhere why I think there was a group of detached Riflemen forming the Light Company of the 1st Battalion of Detachments and this is where Sharpe would have been. An officer of this Light Company was wounded at Grijon, the day before the taking of Oporto. There is no evidence that they crossed with the Buffs, or that outposts were sent out to watch the approaches to the seminary. But General Paget did cross in one of the early boats, even though none of the troops were from his division. He was shot in the arm while directing the defence from the roof of the seminary, and he lost the arm, but by that time General Hill had crossed and took over. If the riflemen did go across, it would have given Paget an excuse to go with them but I think he needed no excuse and the Riflemen crossed to the town with the rest of Stewart's brigade (including the 29th) when the Portuguese retook all the boats.
Paget was invalided home, but returned in the autumn of 1812, as Wellington's second-in-Command, in time for the retreat from Burgos. Very much a hands-on commander, he and his Spanish orderly were trying to close a gap that had opened between the 5th and 7th divisions, when they were surprised by three French cavalrymen, and the one-armed, short-sighted Paget was taken prisoner, and remained captive in France for the rest of the war. Despite being a product of the purchase system, Paget was a thoroughly professional and much-loved soldier.
There are very few eye witness accounts of Oporto. Tomkinson was with the 16th Light Dragoons and gives excellent accounts of the cavalry actions at Albergaria, and on the Vallonga road, and Surgeon Good of the 3rd Foot Guards has left a brief description. I have leant heavily on the description of Thomas Hamilton in his "Annals". Hamilton was an officer (a Captain I believe) in the 29th, and was one of the men who crossed into Oporto and took the third French attack in the flank. Paget's division seems to have been all over the place at Oporto, so I have put in a possible explanation as to how the 29th managed to be one of the first battalions across and into the town.
Both the term "friendly fire" and the indignation associated with it are modern developments. In Sharpe's day it was regarded as one of the hazards of war, especially if you wore a different colour jacket to the rest of the army.
John Waters was one of the best "Exploring Officers" Wellesley had, and had indeed performed the same function for Moore. He met a Portuguese peasant with information about the ferry at Avintas, and also discovered the boats near the seminary.
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Last update 10/2/03